Above: Esthwaitewater at Harvest Time, 1895
Last week, both Peter and my sister sent me an op ed from the New York Times, “An English Sheep Farmer’s View of Rural America,” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/01/opinion/an-english-sheep-farmers-view-of-rural-america.html?emc=eta1. Both thought it might merit my commentary. Having written admiringly about its author, James Rebanks, just eighteen months ago, I of course read the Times piece avidly. The man writes beautifully and profoundly about farming, something I discovered when I read his memoir of a traditional shepherding life in the fells of the Lake District, entitled “A Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches From an Ancient Landscape.”
After reading the op ed, at first I couldn’t imagine what I could say that Mr. Rebanks had not already said more forcefully, eloquently and persuasively. Rebanks makes a point I’ve made in numerous essays over time: There is an inherent value to the endeavor of farming on a small scale, both for the grower and the consumer, that makes it worth doing even if the small farmer will inevitably lose money and the consumer will pay more in the process.
Small scale environmentally responsible farming will not become economically viable unless consumers, the governments that represent them, and the industries that serve them fundamentally change how they value things. Food is currently grossly undervalued, compared to other consumer goods and services. Moreover, the vast majority of consumers are not willing to pay more for food that is raised sustainably and humanely, and they often put higher value on appearance than on freshness and nutritional value. As Peter has pointed out, while the burgeoning growth in farmers’ markets and the attention given to specific farm producers on fine restaurant menus is encouraging, the vast bulk of American food is still purchased at the local supermarket where cheapness and convenience are the highest values.
Until food prices are no longer defined by the bottom line, the small farmer is doomed to support his or her farming “habit” with off-farm income. Or to move on to other things.
Rebanks says: “My farm’s lack of profitability perhaps shouldn’t be of any great concern to anyone else. I’m a grown-up, and I chose to live this way. I chose it because my ancestors all did this, and because I love it, however doomed it might seem to others.” And of course, Rebanks is able to sustain his operation because his Oxford education and incisive mind give him outside work. He travels the world as a development consultant to international organizations that work to improve the lives of the nearly two billion people around the world, the vast majority outside the major industrial economies, who still engage in small scale agriculture.
As you know, Peter and I did not choose the small farming life because we inherited it, but because we seemed inexorably drawn to it. And we, too, love it in spite of the economic consequences. Hence our running joke that it takes three businesses — a law practice, a gallery and a travel business — to support the farm.
Though I can’t improve on anything Rebanks says, I ultimately decided that his op ed is worthy of comment because of the distinct change in tone I perceived from his book to his article. What I took away from his book, in part, was a sense of optimism and purpose in figuring out how small scale farming could become economically sustainable by some association with tourism. He wrote about how farmers could profitably and sensitively accommodate themselves to the arrival of new non-agricultural populations. His consulting work for UNESCO focused in part on communities in transition, and on how farming communities could preserve their traditional culture in the face of a changing world.
It must be said that Rebanks comes from a place ideally situated to facilitate these efforts — the Lake District, one of Britain’s great rural tourist attractions. The agricultural land in his region is very closely protected through land trust holdings, zoning, and traditional usage arrangements that protect agricultural land even as newcomers move in. The Lake District, the beauties of which were, Peter tells me, brought to British consciousness by the poetry and writings of William Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge and other Romantics, was then preserved by the efforts of people like Beatrix Potter, the author of Peter Rabbit and other classic children’s tales, who moved to the fells of the Lake District, raised Herdwick sheep (the same local breed Rebanks raises) in a traditional, environmentally responsible manner, gave thousands of acres to land trusts and fought to preserve the local culture. (See http://www.beatrixpottersociety.org.uk)
The unique qualities and history of the Lake District mean that initiatives that make sense there may not be readily transferable to every place agriculture is practiced. Rebanks’ ideas are certainly pertinent, however, to the Hudson Valley, another place of famed scenic beauty. Here, farms are increasingly interacting profitably with tourism and confronting suburban style developments and second home owners with which they have uneasy relationships. Here, too, traditional farming culture is evaporating despite the valiant efforts in recent years of organizations like the Columbia Land Trust to promote agricultural uses. Nevertheless, Rebanks’ roots in the Lake District clearly informed a “can-do” attitude that small scale agriculture could survive and thrive in any environment if only we put our minds to the task.
The sense of optimism that pervaded his book is replaced in Rebanks’ op ed by a distinctly pessimistic tone. He wrote it after returning from a book tour in the United States last fall. He describes traveling through rural Kentucky, an area he perceived as being in shabby decline, with rotting houses and barns, collapsing fences and abandoned farmland, the casualties of a changing economy, unlikely to be rescued by tourism or second home development. He says he could accept the changes he was witnessing if he saw counterbalancing improvements in the lives of the people, but that what he sees is change for the worse — “much worse.”
The vision he described in his book, in which farmers embrace the changing world around them and learn to profit from it, is replaced here by confronting the reality that people don’t readily adapt. It’s not so easy to create conditions that enable or encourage adaptation; human nature is not all that adaptable. His former premise that small scale farming can thrive is virtually overturned as he recognizes that modern industrial society, led by America, has already made a Faustian bargain. In exchange for satisfying our demand for abundant cheap food, we have created a world where young people, particularly in rural areas, cannot find meaningful work at an adequate wage certainly not in agriculture or fast food service jobs. As in many other parts of the economy, agricultural wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
Rebanks concisely sums up why the industrial model of agriculture does not work: “Farming is more than a business. Food is more than a commodity. Land is more than a mineral resource.”
What I found almost distressing about his op ed is Rebanks’ conclusion. I would expect him to be the guy to tell us how we shift gears from here. But on a note of what I might describe as feeble desperation, he instead suggests that because places like rural Kentucky, voting out of economic despair, were so important to President Trump’s election, those now in power in Washington should begin giving careful thought to how our agricultural economy has gone wrong and how to make small farming thrive again.
In fact, we know that won’t happen. The Perdues and Puzders of this world, whom the President would like to have in charge of these matters, have been among the chief promoters of the same agricultural industrial economy Rebanks laments. They have never been averse to concentration of wealth. The governing majority is already paring back or abolishing programs to protect ecosystems and promote an environmentally sustainable farming model.
The answer to Rebanks’s well-founded despair is not to look to the current government for solutions, but to encourage some kind of solution to grow up from the grass roots — which means us folks, farmers and consumers, together.